The violent attack on the Capitol cost lives, threatened the transition of presidential power and forever changed the way Congress does its work. One year later, we at POLITICO are looking back at those changes and how Washington is moving forward.
Could it happen again?
That’s the question facing policymakers and law enforcement leaders who’ve spent the last year assessing the failures in their response to Jan. 6, 2021.
As they cope with the searing trauma in their own ranks, they’ve tried to patch flaws in Capitol security exposed by the attack — inspired by former President Donald Trump — that wounded more than 150 police officers and left four rioters dead. Another officer died of a stroke after responding to the riot, and several more died by suicide in the ensuing weeks.
But the political blight that contributed to the attack has only worsened, inside and outside the Capitol. So while leaders feel readier today than they did on Jan. 5, no one is rushing to declare the threat has passed.
“The last thing that I want to do is say, ‘this could never happen again’ and have it sound like a challenge to those people,” said Capitol Police Chief Thomas Manger, who took over the department in August after his predecessor’s ouster following the siege. “I’m not trying to be overconfident. We are much better prepared.”
The story of that preparation is only partially written, though. Capitol Police officers remain overtaxed and exhausted, logging crushing amounts of overtime as they grapple with a depleted force. Threats against members of Congress are still spiking. A Sept. 18 rally to support certain insurrectionists drew an overwhelming police presence that dwarfed the smattering of demonstrators, raising questions about an overcorrection and quality of intelligence.
And with the atmosphere under the dome as personally corrosive as ever, it’s tough to say the Capitol has moved forward from Jan. 6. Many of those who fled from or responded to the violence are indelibly scarred.
“My concern about the Capitol Police is that we’re making them work too hard and too long,” Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, the top Republican on the Senate committee that oversees Capitol security, told reporters recently. “And we need to figure out a way to shift some of those responsibilities … or to figure out a way to recruit more people.”
Manger says 135 officers have retired or resigned since Jan. 6, and the force as a whole is “probably 400 officers down from where we should be.”
The chair of the House select panel on Jan. 6, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), recently took stock of the challenges facing the Capitol during a police-led tour of sites breached by rioters.
“I am more confident, given what occurred on Jan. 6 of last year, that if something like that occurred this time, the likelihood of anything close [happening again] would be zero,” Thompson said in an interview. “The only question is whether or not we have put our intelligence gathering entities on a sharing path … It was the worst-kept secret in America that something was going to happen, and why our agencies did not pick it up in real-time and be better prepared is one of those weaknesses we have to make sure we fix.”
What has changed…
Manger can claim a number of notable improvements in preparation since he took charge.
Every Capitol Police officer now carries a department-issued phone that provides real-time emergency alerts. The phones address what became a crippling problem on Jan. 6: A flood of radio traffic that drowned out key messages and left officers feeling leaderless during the fighting.
The department’s riot control unit, singled out as deficient on Jan. 6, now has more diverse “non-lethal” gear to help with crowd control. Its intelligence analysts now regularly share threat assessments with rank-and-file officers, after many of those officers lamented that their leaders never informed them of prior intelligence about the potential for violence at the Capitol.
Wes Schwark, an operational planning expert who organized Secret Service security during major events, is now on board. Congress gave the department a needed $100 million cash infusion over the summer.
With little fanfare, Congress also passed — and President Joe Biden signed — legislation giving the Capitol Police chief the unilateral authority to seek National Guard assistance, eliminating a hurdle that delayed a request for help on Jan. 6, 2021. Thompson pointed to this policy change and noted the new leadership not just at the U.S. Capitol Police but also in the House and Senate sergeants-at-arms, who are responsible for coordinating security for their respective sides of the Capitol.
Manger’s also working to beef up Capitol Police coordination with other law enforcement agencies. When intelligence pointed to violence at the Capitol during September’s protest in support of some alleged Jan. 6 rioters, he brought together 13 agencies, conducted tabletop exercises and “planned for the worst.”
“The things that went wrong on Jan. 6, the failures within this organization,” Manger said, “those have been fixed to a point where I don’t believe that you’d have the same outcome.”
However, the September protest proved minuscule. And some lawmakers skeptically eyed that day’s overwhelming law enforcement presence.
“I don’t believe we’re in any better security posture today than we were on Jan. 5,” said Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis, the top Republican on the House Administration Committee. “I think there’s still way too much politics involved in security decisions.”
Davis pointed to the mismatch between the security posture near the Capitol on Sept. 18 and the scale of the event that took place as a sign that the Capitol Police has more work to do on analyzing its intelligence.
…and what still needs attention
Manger expects the department will have investigated more than 9,000 potential threats against members of Congress since Jan. 6, a tenfold increase since 2016. He attributes the increase to a cauldron of animosity fueled by social media.
“We definitely need to add staffing to fulfill that responsibility,” Manger said, lamenting “the dynamics of social media and, I think, the lack of civility that a lot of folks have. And just the toxic culture.”
He’ll face questions during a Wednesday Senate hearing about other challenges, including whether the Capitol Police has done enough to implement the post-Jan. 6 recommendations of its inspector general.
“[T]he Department still has more work to achieve the goal of making the Capitol Complex safe and secure,” independent watchdog Michael Bolton told senators recently.
Bolton issued monthly reports throughout 2021, identifying problems that hurt the Capitol Police’s response to the riot. In addition to insufficient deployment of non-lethal weaponry, a problem Manger has tackled, the inspector general found the department’s leaders lacking a cohesive emergency plan. Its intelligence division was threadbare and ill-prepared.
More fundamentally, Bolton wants the Capitol Police to function more like a protective agency — akin to the Secret Service — than a police department. Of the 104 recommendations delivered by his office, the Capitol Police has only fully implemented one-third so far, he told senators. (Manger says Bolton’s tally doesn’t include the fact that another 60 recommendations are substantially, if not fully, complete.)
The inspector general isn’t alone in evaluating the Capitol Police’s still-unfinished progress on incorporating the lessons from a brutal year. The Jan. 6 select committee, though its primary focus is on Trump and his network, is also eyeing recommendations to protect the Capitol campus.
An outside review ordered by House Democratic leaders, as well as a bipartisan Senate investigation, culminated in more sets of suggested reforms last year. One small but meaningful proposed shift became law last month — it allows a Capitol Police chief to request National Guard assistance without going through the department’s oft-criticized board structure.
From inside the Capitol?
While GOP lawmakers have lambasted a few Democrats for suggesting that Republicans gave rioters “reconnaissance” tours or other help, a claim for which no evidence has emerged, the Capitol Police has reckoned with misdeeds in its own ranks. Some officers were seen fist-bumping or taking selfies with people who breached the Capitol, and the department substantiated a handful of the three dozen-plus misconduct reports it investigated.
More significantly, 25-year Capitol Police officer Michael Riley was indicted for attempting to help a rioter erase evidence. That rioter rejected his advice and helped the FBI bring charges against Riley.
Bolton recommended that all officers obtain secret- or top secret-level security clearances, which involve extensive background checks. The inspector general said this would raise the caliber of recruits and guard against potential insider threats; department leaders resisted the move.
Manger told POLITICO that Bolton’s goal may be worthy, but it’s premature and not universally necessary as the department struggles to fill open positions.
“If we require every officer to have a security clearance, we’re slowing down that process,” Manger said, adding that the department conducts comprehensive vetting during hiring.
Possible insider threats, Manger said, aren’t considered “a huge problem.”
Olivia Beavers contributed to this report.